A Tamilian from Bombay reacts to the trailer of Chennai Express…

If someone asks me where I am from, I always say I’m from Bombay. Quite often that never seems to satisfy people. It is always usually followed by “But where are you actually from?” While I have lived most of my life in this city, the questions don’t end until I tell them that I’m a Tamilian from Palakkad, Kerala. Incidentally, I have never lived there.

Growing up as a Tamilian in Bombay is an unremarkable experience in a way. Being a cosmopolitan city, one assimilates easily and you don’t grow up feeling different from the rest. However, even as I say this, the fact that my roots are not from this place has always been pretty clear. Every summer vacation, most of my south Indian friends (including me) went to our respective “native” places; a place of our roots. It was subtle but clear that culturally we were different from the original inhabitants, the Maharashtrians.

Having grown up in a place where I only spoke my mother tongue at home, visits down south would always be interesting. For instance, I remember whenever I went to Chennai, it would always hit me that I couldn’t speak to my mother in Tamil to strategise with her before striking up a bargain with the shopkeeper. That’s because everyone spoke in the same language. It felt weirdly nice to have people speak in the same language (more or less) we spoke at home. It is a different feeling. You don’t get to experience that in Bombay. While Bombay is still home, I feel quite at home in Chennai culturally even though I have never lived there.

I recently happened to watch the trailer of Chennai Express.

On the day of its release, the trailer was widely shared on social media. However to say it disappointed me would be an understatement. My first reaction to the trailer was that of anger. What stuck out like a sore thumb was Deepika Padukone’s godawful Tamil accent. I mean it takes special talent to exaggerate an already prevalent stereotype.

Anyway, out of sheer anger I tweeted saying, “I wish Tamil film makers stereotype everything Hindi and show it in a Tamil film. I’ll go first day first show.” One of the responses I got to this tweet was, “Hey! But we do it too.” This remark initially stumped me a bit. But now that I think about it, my tweet is reflective of my poor knowledge of Tamil films.The same twitter user, who is also a Tamilian, later told me (in response to my tweet) that this isn’t an ‘us vs them’ issue with the ‘us’ being the Tamilians and ‘them’ being the ‘north’ Indians.

While I pondered over her statement, I realised it is not the same for me. It’s a bit complicated. During my childhood, I grew up on a very (un)healthy dose of Bollywood. A Govinda number has more resonance for me than a typical ‘tappangoothu’ song. My knowledge of Tamil films is pathetic to say the least. While a lot of my south Indian friends regularly watched the latest of Tamil and Malayalam films, I hardly ever did. While I am culturally a Tamilian, my pop-culture influences come more from Bollywood than Tamil films.

In a typical Bollywood fare, Tamilians have always been represented as the quintessential buffoons who struggle to speak in Hindi. (Remember Mehmood from Padosan?) That I still get the ‘Oh! You speak very good Hindi for a South Indian’ comment, is reflective of how deeply rooted the stereotype is.

One would be hard-pressed to see a lead character play a south Indian in a Hindi film. It is quite rare. They are at best, ‘side’ characters. So, one can never see a South Indian character like us being shown in Bollywood apart from the stereotypes, of course. Somehow the trivialised part of representations of Tamilians never irritated me this way. It was more of a matter-of-fact acceptance of the phenomenon (sad, I know!). However, despite an absence of my ethnic presence in an industry like Bollywood, there are other things have resonated with me. Especially the Bambaiyya lingo, which one sees in many films, is the one that I still speak with so many people. It is one of the things that strengthens my bond with Hindi films.

My reaction to the trailers of Chennai Express interested me and intrigued me for many reasons. I kept wondering the deeper reasons for my anger. Because this isn’t the first time that communities were being stereotyped in Bollywood.

This pondering reminded me of this concept in philosophy called ‘othering’.

“Othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an ‘other'”

To put it simply, othering refers to a phenomenon, when we isolate something (people, culture, habits etc) as different from ourselves. When one’s worldview becomes universal and superior, anything that differs from it becomes the Other. (More here) (More examples of othering concerning gender) When I saw the Chennai Express trailer, my Tamil identity reacted. That something which is a close part of my life can depict my own ethnicity in such an awful way irritated me to no end. In my moment of anger, I became the other.

While I have seen many characters being stereotyped, for the first time, I ‘felt’ it. I felt disappointed that a milieu, I feel culturally quite at home with, made fun of my ethnicity. It ‘othered’ people like me. No longer was I a member of the dominant cultural landscape of Bollywood. I am the ‘other’, I’m the Tamilian, different from anything Bollywood. The film managed to trigger a sudden sense of other-ness that I didn’t consciously feel at this level before. (Thanks, Shobha)

Migration is a tricky thing. One needn’t live in America to experience confusion as far as one’s identity is concerned. Experiencing migration within India generates multiple confusions too especially since there is so much diversity in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion, regions etc. While for many, the cultural loyalties in terms of Tamil film industry and Bollywood will be very clear, for many people like me, it isn’t. And such instances of stereotypes will constantly challenge these absolute categories and make us wonder— Where do we really belong?

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Kai Po Che and forgiveness

I recently happened to see Kai Po Che.  The film had a strong impact on me as I was deeply moved by some scenes in the film. However, I would like to state that I do have major problems with the politics of the film per se. (Please read these two very well argued articles on this topic.) But this is not what I wish to talk about right now.

The film is about three friends —Omi, Ishaan and Govind— and how their friendship gets affected owing to certain events that happened in Gujarat in the last decade viz. the Gujarat Earthquake, the Godhra train burning incident and the subsequent pogrom of Muslims that took place.

The three friends and their entrepreneurial dreams is what forms the crux of the film. While Govind is the money-minded ‘Baniya’ of the group, Ishaan is an angry young man who is all heart. Omi, I thought, was someone with no striking characteristic to his name. But the fact that he was so regular and his transition as someone who has definitive views against the Muslim community was very deftly shown. Omi ends up becoming the financier for the trio’s entrepreneurial endevours and thus finds himself embroiled in the workings of the Hindu party in return. That’s a quid pro quo since his uncle, who is the leader of the party, is the man who lends him the money.

In the end of the film, Omi ends up losing his parents to the Godhra train burning incident.  He also ends up witnessing his uncle’s death, when the latter is all set to kill a Muslim man in the riots that followed the Godhra incident. Blinded by grief and rage over the loss of his parents and his uncle, all Omi wants is to kill; someone, anyone, who is Muslim. And he runs after a young Muslim boy, whom Ishaan tries to protect. After a brief tussle, Omi ends up having control of the gun and when he presses the trigger aiming for the boy, the bullet finds home in Ishaan’s body and he dies on the spot.

The scene where Omi accidentally shoots Ishaan, and the scene after that—Omi’s shocked face and disbelief—stayed with me for a long time. Even after coming out of the theatre, I couldn’t forget his eyes and the shock! It was a powerful scene.

Omi goes to jail. His eyes portray deep sadness even as Govind comes to receive him after his release. Omi’s life post his release from the jail, by the looks of it, is surrounded by everything related to Ishaan—the business in which all of three were partners, Ishaan’s sister who also happens to be Govind’s wife, their child who is named Ishaan and the Muslim kid he tried to kill (whose life Ishaan tried to save) who has become a successful cricketer! Ishaan is also shown as being forgiven by his best friend, Ishaan’s sister.

The film made me think deeply about forgiveness. I am sure there are many people who choose forgiveness as a way of dealing with difficult situations in life. (Please read this excellent piece on restorative justice.) Forgiveness, as a friend of mine always points out, is not to accept what the person did was right. It is a process of having no bitterness about it. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the process of forgiving the self. Omi does get punished by law. Omi is shown breaking down in front of Ishaan’s sister. He also gets forgiven by the main people concerned but is he able to forgive himself? Out here, the punishment by law seem rather feeble considering the humungous task that lay in front of him— forgiving himself.

They say time is the big healer but how can you heal from the finality of death of a loved one, especially if you have killed the person. How can you forgive yourself after doing something like this? It was a mistake his friend died. But the friend died! Death is final. Death is irreversible. How can one live with this burden? Seeing those final scenes, especially those, where he ends up going to all those places, meeting all those people connected to Ishaan, I kept wondering how he could do it.

I believe guilt and the inability to forgive self is one of the toughest things one can experience. But can self-forgiveness be even possible in a situation like this? What can you do when you know you have been the one to make the irredeemable mistake? How do you forgive yourself? Should one even try? Does one even deserve self-forgiveness in a situation like this?

I don’t know. I have no answers.

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/shobha-sv/kai-po-che/10151569518663478

English Vinglish

In 1982, Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halal delivered this popular dialogue: ‘English is a very phunny language.’ I guess it is. However, I think it is not English that is funny but the context that makes it so popular in India that makes it tragically funny. I will come to that later.

The premise of English Vinglish, that of a married middle-aged Indian woman wanting to learn English, was something that personally appealed to me. Add Sridevi to the equation and I was hooked! As expected Sridevi was a joy to watch. She was just spot-on as Shashi, the slightly under confident middle aged married woman, who doesn’t know English very well. Besides, I agree with Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) when he says, her eyes are like two drops of dark chocolate in the sky. What expressive eyes! Sigh! Anyway, I am digressing here. This piece is not my love letter to Sridevi.

Shashi is this quiet, efficient house wife who is also a small entrepreneur. She sells delicious laddoos. However, she constantly faces ridicule from her daughter and her husband, who seem to be ashamed of the fact that that she doesn’t know English. So, in order to earn respect from her family, she goes on to learn the language.

The graph of Shashi’s character in the film stays constant. When she meets the handsome, charming, sensitive (and absolutely drool worthy) Laurent, who shows interest in her, Shashi does not have a relationship with him. I would have been surprised if she would have done that. I could also relate to her need to please her family, a need that comes from low self confidence.  It is not easy to fight with one’s own demons but Shashi was doing just that and I was rooting for her.

The build-up of the plot is such that Shashi had to triumph in the end. And what can be a better showcase of the triumph than a speech in the climax, in a language that she was struggling all along! So Shashi gives a speech to her newly married niece and her husband about marriage, togetherness and family. To her credit, she gives the speech in halting English that had lines like “Sometimes you will feel less and sometimes the other person might feel less in the relationship.” But what followed after that totally stumped me when she said, “Your family will always support you when you are low. Your family will always give you confidence when you need it.”

I suddenly stopped caring for Shashi because it all seemed like one big farce. It seemed so hypocritical to see Shashi giving this speech, when her life was anything but that. Shashi’s family members did not do many things for her. Despite that, here she was selling the new couple, the idea of an ‘always supportive’ family! That was inherently dishonest writing by Gauri Shinde.

Many people I know felt that the character of Sridevi was being sarcastic but I did not feel the sarcasm. Even if I assume she was sarcastic, there is a problem. Sarcasm always conveys dual messages. Her speech was intended for two different sets of recipients— her daughter and husband and her niece and her husband. While she reserved the sarcasm for the former, it was a straight forward speech for the latter and that really put me off!

What does it mean to keep parading and selling this idea of an “ideal” family? There is no ‘ideal’ family. ‘Ideal’ families do not exist. Given the current scheme of things, despite the problems, families are a support system nevertheless. But they are far from ideal! Quite often one’s family will not be there for them when one needs them the most. Sometimes one’s family will not offer support when it is needed the most. Families have problems and it is best if those are accepted and acknowledged. Not acknowledging them is violence in itself because by constantly talking of the ideal, the real problems are quite often brushed under the carpet.

Shashi is shown wanting respect. I wonder how can one demand respect. Does one get it in exchange by acquiescing to the demands made by the people we are seeking it from? Or do we gain respect on our own terms?

If it would have been on her own terms then she would have got it just on the basis of the way she is—Hindi speaking, delicious laddoo-making entrepreneur. Instead love and subsequently respect seem conditional here.

While she is shown as triumphant in the end, not much is questioned about so-called demands put forth by her husband and her daughter. Apart from the feeling of shame that the daughter and the husband experience post her English speech, nothing much is said about the very nature of their expectations at all. It is just accepted as a common norm, which needn’t be questioned, now that success has been achieved.

The point is despite her judgemental family members, she was a successful woman. She wasn’t losing any business because she was not a bad cook. Nor was she less appealing to others because of her lack of knowledge of English, as was evident from her interaction with her daughter’s school principal. She was constantly belittled and made fun of because of her lack of understanding of English, which seems like an end in itself.

Why do we learn English? Of course, many learn English because they love the language. But many of us also learn English to ‘succeed’ in the job market. So that we can earn good money as opposed to many others, who cannot owing to their poor English. So that, we can have that ‘respect’ that comes from being successful in the society. But when one is successful in their own right without knowing English, why do we need English? Whose validation are we seeking? What does the associated prestige that comes from knowing how to converse in “good” English reflect about us? Why is nothing being said about the underlying assumptions so many of us have about lack of knowledge of English being equal to lack of sophistication or lack of class? Would we feel the same way if we did not know another Indian language, say Tamil?

The director has shown Shashi’s triumph but through that she has ended up reinforcing our collective low self worth. No, those populist dialogues— ‘Ab Angrezon ka nahin, hamara waqt hain’, and ‘Just as you survive in our country without knowing Hindi’— don’t help. They further reinforce the notion. Shashi’s success seems to be emerging from this need to please others for approval. The success also adheres to a standard that is based on low self esteem steeped in insecurity and lack of confidence.

English Vinglish unintentionally brings to the fore our collective low self worth regarding our need to know English in order to be considered successful and sophisticated. Shashi might have had her little triumph but I think her victory represents our collective failure of accepting ourselves the way we are.

First published here.